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Shawn Vestal: WSU students step up, fund Evergreen print edition

The Bryan Hall clocktower at Washington State University glows at dawn on Sept. 17, 2016. A Pullman police sergeant could face charges in connection with a sexual misconduct allegation by an 18-year-old WSU student. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Here’s something you don’t hear every day in the journalism world: Print wins!

The students at Washington State University – or the 28 percent of them who voted, anyway – chose to charge themselves $5 per semester to support the continued daily publication of the Daily Evergreen, the student newspaper since 1895.

The new student fee passed by the skinniest of margins Tuesday night, with a majority vote of 50.8 percent. Seventy-eight students made the difference, the Evergreen reported.

Newspaper staffers had worked hard to support the measure on campus and had editorialized in favor of the fee, arguing that maintaining the daily presence of an independent print newspaper on campus was an essential resource for students and the community at large, and a vital counterweight to the ever-growing army of public-relations staffers deployed by the university to spit-shine the news.

“Without The Daily Evergreen,” the newspaper editorialized Monday, “all that is left is PR. All that is left is BS.”

The fees will make it possible for the Evergreen to continue publishing five days a week, as it has done since 1980, and to preserve summer print publication.

For now, anyway.

Had the measure failed, the Evergreen would have gone to four days a week and eliminated summer print publication.

The vote was so close the student journalists at the paper weren’t even sure it had passed, initially.

“You need 50 percent of the vote, plus one,” said Madison Jackson, the Evergreen’s editor in chief. “We had to have a little discussion about whether it even passed. … We weren’t sure if it was 50 percent plus one or 51 percent.”

Thus, in addition to learning how to report, write, investigate, argue, edit, package and distribute the news, the student journalists at WSU have picked up another crucial skill for the 21st-century media landscape: fighting for your very existence.

The Evergreen faced cuts for the same reason that newspapers everywhere have faced cuts in recent years. Advertising revenue, which is the lifeblood of a print newspaper, has shrunk. This was exacerbated by universitywide budget cuts, which prompted a lot of campus departments to cut back on event advertising.

By the end of last semester, the paper was running a deficit larger than its reserves, and the university’s director of publications, Richard Miller, and the board that oversees student media were considering ways to bring the budget back into the black. There were different alternatives, but reducing print publication was at the forefront.

Miller and others emphasized that the Evergreen was not at risk of being eliminated – it was a question of shifting toward an online focus. For some students, the notion of paying to preserve print publication in the era of online everything didn’t make a lot of sense.

The president of the student body, Jordan Frost, tweeted this week, “The Evergreen does not need to be ‘saved’. Without this fee the paper will still exist. … They would still have online access for readers.”

This is a common, understandable view. Those of us on the other side of it are probably on the wrong side of history, so to speak. Many people – and young people especially – regard a print newspaper as a relic, the equivalent of a manual typewriter in the age of the smartphone.

But transferring everything to an online platform is simply not the same enterprise; producing a daily newspaper has a different level of visibility and impact, especially on campus, and the demands of the schedule put a productive, educational pressure on journalists to cover the news with urgency and to stay on top of developing stories.

Like this year’s systemwide budget-cutting, for example. The newspaper has been aggressive in digging out the ramifications and priorities of the cuts. It highlighted proposals to trim the pay of low-paid grad students and eliminate counselors meant to help students of color stay in school, for example – proposals that were reversed or modified after students learned about them and complained.

For Jackson and the journalists at the Evergreen, the past several months have been a fight for survival. It’s probably been an excellent learning experience as well in any number of ways, including a firsthand immersion in the nature of debate in the age of social media.

“There is just a huge disparity between the people who care about print or even about journalism in general, and the people who just want to troll us on Facebook,” she said.

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